Many aspiring coaches wonder about the potential benefits of joining and credentialing with the ICF. Here are 3 reasons to consider.
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The International Coaching Federation—or “ICF”—is the largest professional body for coaches in the world. There are other, smaller organizations but ICF has the most members (tens of thousands), the most credential holders (more than 27 thousand), and chapters in the most nations (more than 100). With an international board of directors, ICF is committed to promoting the profession through research, high standards for training and practice, and other forms of advocacy.
With all that said, I’ll be honest: I was a coach for a long time—more than a decade—before I joined. Sure, I had completed my training, had my client contact hours, and was qualified for a credential but still, I did not join. Why did I drag my feet? In the early days, I felt that there were holes in the ICF’s approach and offerings and, fortunately, I feel that those holes are now being addressed.
In fact, when I train coaches, I encourage them to seek out ICF certification. Here’s why:
Standards for Practice
I am certain that many coaches consider joining the ICF for various financial reasons: having a widely-recognized credential might yield more clients, the ICF provides help with business development, membership offers discounts on conferences and other events. None of these are compelling reasons for me. In fact, I caution against this way of thinking. The reason to get credentialed, to attend conferences, and to develop your business is so that you can serve your clients better not so that you can make money. In my opinion, training and on-going learning are always undertaken with a focus on providing responsible and effective coaching.
It is here, I believe, that the ICF offers substantial value. The ICF sets standards for training, articulates clear ethical standards, compels continuing education, and provides oversight of coaching competency. By participating in ICF training or by joining the organization after training, coaches explicitly endorse ethical and responsible practice. Clients, for their part, know that their coach has received training, has been observed by credentialed practitioners, has completed more than 100 hours of coaching, and receives continuing education.
I especially love that the ICF has a formal ethics code. Admittedly, the ICF is a young organization (just over 20 years old), and its code of ethics is not as sophisticated as, say, the code for the American Psychological Association (more than 100 years old). In the ICF’s defense, however, the code is regularly reviewed and revised. In addition, the ICF has a formal mechanism for receiving ethical complaints against training programs and individual coaches.
Further, they report back on this process. For example, in the one-year period between April 2018 and March 2019, the ICF received 23 complaints of which 11 met the requirements for formal review. Three of these cases involved inappropriate boundaries or behavior and the coaches in question were censured by the ICF. Although I would like to see the ICF publish more detailed (but anonymous) case studies on ethical violations, I think this basic reporting is a step in the right direction.
Information About Coaching
Another clear benefit of ICF membership is the ability of coaches to access important information related to our field. All professions—whether it is plumbing, farming, medicine, or coaching—must content with emerging technologies and evolving practices. It is too much to expect individual practitioners to have to curate a list of every possible change in the field. This is where professional organizations—the ICF included—step in. By providing articles and research on coaching, the ICF helps coaches stay abreast of developments in the field. Here is a smattering of what the ICF provides:
- Research Portal: Membership includes access to the ICF’s research portal. There, I can, for example, type “strengths” and see 100 relevant academic publications on strengths as they relate to coaching, leadership, and similar topics. Admittedly, some of the articles are available to download and some remain hidden behind a paywall. The ICF portal lacks the sophistication of other professional databases I have used such as LexusNexus and PsycInfo but it is still a helpful tool for coaches interested in deeper learning.
- Industry Research: The ICF regularly uses surveys to conduct industry-relevant research. At the time of this writing, for instance, they are engaged in a study of the ways that the COVID-19 pandemic might be affecting the coaching industry. The ICF also reports on a regular consumer awareness study and a global coaching study. The latter is conducted every 4 years and provides a snapshot of worldwide coaching including the location of coaches, ages, gender breakdown, training, annual revenue, and information about clients and potential future trends.
- Coaching World: As you might expect with any professional organization, the ICF has a regular digital publication, Coaching World. These articles are written by scholars and practitioners and typically include topics that are of interest to coaches such as using social media, strategies for team coaching, understanding neuroscience, and business development.
One of the upsides to coaching is that it is an extremely portable profession. Coaches work from home, co-working spaces, and even the beach. This is, of course, because a large portion of coaching is delivered through digital platforms. The downside to this is that many coaches work in relatively isolated conditions. For novice coaches, the hazard of working in a silo can be a lack of feedback on performance. For experienced practitioners, the hazard is to be found in complacency. I know this personally because there was a time—perhaps 10 years into my practice—that I found it easy to fall into the worn ruts of habitual coaching behaviors. In fact, it was membership in the ICF that is partially to credit with me being able to invigorate my practice.
The ICF provides opportunities for coaches to interact with one another. This, in turn, provides a range of professional benefits including networking, peer consultation on ethical dilemmas, and discussion of practice. Here is a shortlist of such opportunities:
- Communities of practice. The ICF curates a number of communities of practice. There are special interest groups related to coaching science, ethical practice, executive coaching, health and wellness coaching, team coaching, and several others. Each community hosts virtual events in which thought leaders present up-to-date information.
- Conferences. Over the years, the ICF has hosted a number of large international conferences. I can remember my first ICF conference in 2005, in San Jose, California. It was refreshing to see that I was not working alone but, instead, was part of a larger body of practice. These days, ICF offers two distinct conference experiences. The first is called “Advance” and it is a provocateur-led meeting that focuses on growing and expanding coaching skills. The second is called “Converge” and it is a global gathering of the profession as a whole; typical of annual conferences for other professional bodies.
- Chapters. There are ICF chapters in more than 100 nations. I like this because it offers opportunities for face to face contact for coaches in every corner of the world. In all honesty, I attend my local chapter about once a year. Occasionally, my chapter hosts events on topics such as marketing that are not really my cup of tea. They do host an annual gathering in which we all coach one another and receive feedback which I absolutely love.
In the end, you do not have to join the ICF. I know a number of skilled and responsible coaches who are not members. That said, each of these examples I can think of are coaches who regularly receive supervision, engage in peer-consultation about practice and ethics, and are constantly learning about coaching. That is, they provide for themselves—at considerable effort—what the ICF provides for others. If you do not already have a consistent and skilled cohort of coaches with whom you regularly interact, I encourage you to look into the ICF. Whether or not you ultimately join, I also encourage you to know and endorse the ICF code of ethics unless your practice is governed by another professional code. If you do decide to join: welcome.
About the author
Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener
Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener is passionate about leaving the research laboratory and working in the field. His studies have taken him to such far-flung places as Greenland, India, Kenya, and Israel. He is a leading authority on strengths, culture, courage, and happiness and is known for his pioneering work in the application of positive psychology to coaching.
Robert has authored more than 70 peer-reviewed academic articles and chapters, two of which are “citation classics” (cited more than 1,000 times each). Dr. Biswas-Diener has authored seven books, including the 2007 PROSE Award winner, Happiness, the New York Times Best Seller, The Upside of Your Dark Side, and the 2023 book Positive Provocation.